One of the most pernicious myths about Rhode Island politics is that the state house is dominated by liberal, labor-backed, Democrats. The Democrat part is certainly true, but neither the liberal nor the labor-backed parts are. Rhode Island, after all, enjoys the only voter-ID vote-suppression bill in the nation voted in by Democrats. We have endured 15 years of tax cuts for the rich that have impoverished our schools and towns and allowed great profits for businesses that turn around and betray our state. We allow payday lenders to soak their customers for 260% interest rates. We were utterly unable to enact any meaningful gun control legislation in the aftermath of an appalling massacre in the next state over last year. The list goes on in a long and embarrassing fashion.
Labor gets a lot of blame for this in certain circles, but it’s a sick joke. The labor movement in Rhode Island is so disunited that pensions were “reformed” in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011, each time making pension coverage for state employee union members weaker and smaller. Whether it’s labor law, pensions, taxes, or municipal funding, it is difficult to think of a high-profile controversy in the legislature won by labor in the last 15 years.
The tragic part of this is that Rhode Island’s electorate is not nearly so retrograde as its legislature. Gun control polls well, as does reproductive justice and raising taxes on rich people, and yet the legislature does not act that way.
This accounts for the Machiavellian nature of legislative politics. The conservative Democrats who have held power there for decades rely on strong-arm tactics to enforce docility among the rank-and-file. Uncontroversial bills get held until after the budget is passed to assure its passage, committee chair and vice-chair seats are awarded to “team players,” malcontents are assigned to the standing committee on whatever they care least about. These are not a sign of power, but a sign of weakness. The leadership has long been aware that their hold on power is precarious, and they rely on the disunity of their opposition to maintain their hold.
Part of what maintains that disunity is the selective granting of power to a few individuals, who are allowed to sit as committee chairs or vice-chairs. These individuals imagine they have some leverage worth protecting and that their position allows them some access to the inner workings. This makes them reliable votes to protect the interests of the powerful. But a lot of it is illusion. I found myself once talking to the vice chair of House Finance committee some years ago on the very day that the Finance Committee issued its revision of the Governor’s budget. I was fascinated to notice that he knew as little about what was in it as I did. In other words, his position allowed him to think he had access, but in reality he had virtually none.
This is what is happening today. People with some small measure of influence — who will never get any more than what they have from Mattiello’s leadership — are unwilling to risk what little they have by supporting a leadership that actually favors their perspective. The tragic part, of course, is that if they could be united, they could make a change.
Tomorrow will be a test.
If Nick Mattiello becomes Speaker, the most powerful position in the state Democratic Party, it will be through the support of tea-party Republicans allied with representatives who do not believe he supports any of their priorities, but are willing to go along with him for the sake of small and ultimately meaningless favors. Do you want Republicans Doreen Costa and Joe Trillo to be kingmakers of the Democratic Party?
The conservative path of our recent history has brought us one bankrupt city and a couple more flirting with it. We have given up tax revenue and gotten nothing for it in return. Our schools, buses, streets, and virtually every other public service you depend on, has gotten smaller, weaker, dirtier, and meaner. The legislature has thwarted Governor Chafee’s attempts to restore Carcieri’s school funding cuts and any semblance of equity among the cities and towns, along with most of the other useful reforms he has proposed. You can be upset with him for not fighting harder, but he is not the obstacle to reform in Rhode Island. This is the status quo of our state, and if you are happy with it, then you have every right to be happy with the status quo of the Assembly leadership.
If you are not happy with it, though, please contact your state rep today and ask them to support change at the state house tomorrow. And if you are a state rep reading this, please remember that the bluff only works when no one stands up.